REVIEW: Paul Rhodes’s verdict on Rachel Sermanni and Gary Stewart, National Centre for Early Music, York, November 23

State of grace: Rachel Sermanni on stage at St Margaret’s Church, home of the National Centre for Early Music, in Walmgate, York. Picture: Paul Rhodes

BEING born gloriously Scottish is simply the luck of the draw. What the performers at the NCEM on Tuesday chose to do with those lovely accents is anything but arbitrary.

Rachel Sermanni’s upbringing in the Cairngorms must have contributed to her distinctive personality, and certainly can be heard ringing through her wonderful singing voice.

Sermanni has only just turned 30. It’s almost a decade since she opened up for Jesca Hoop at one of Tony Fothergill’s much-missed House Concerts. Then, she had the charisma but not the songs, but now an adult, she is much further down that (never ending) road.

Her 75-minute set was richly textured – high praise as she was playing solo – and drew on songs from across her career. As a performer she naturally draws you in, and her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming. While sometimes on record her material lacks heft, live and buoyed by her stage craft, it made for a really enjoyable evening.

Singer-songwriter Gary Stewart (who also fronts a Paul Simon tribute show built around the Graceland album, by the way)

Things had got off to a promising start with a charming support set from Gary Stewart. Comparisons with Paul Simon were inescapable, even down to the tank top, but then is there any higher benchmark for a singer-songwriter?

Born in  Perthshire, we are lucky to have Stewart live near York, and he performed a set of songs from his home-recorded lockdown record, Lost, Then Found. His lilting, airy voice and dextrous finger picking were a treat.

While it was a shame he didn’t play his dainty Sadder Day Song – where laying on the grass in York’s Museum Gardens finally makes it into song – there was still much to enjoy. Pick of the set was Sailors And Tailors, which wittily and tunefully brought back to life the romance of his Scottish ancestors.

Kudos to Please Please You promoter Joe Coates’s attuned ears for matching these two performers.

Rachel Sermanni: “Her habit of holding your gaze is quite disarming,” says reviewer Paul Rhodes

Sermanni’s songs took the evening up another level. While she professed to be rusty, the occasional ‘alternative’ note added rather than detracted, making it feel much more human and real – more in keeping with her organic persona.

She wove in a mix of happy songs, with the audience stirred into voice for Dream A Little Dream Of Me (made popular by Doris Day), bitter (the curiously titled Tractor and searching and sad (Everything Changes, a standout from 2014).

Her most recent EP focused on her response to giving birth, Swallow Me sharing the stage with its darker brethren, Travelled. It makes her a highly relatable artist. What Can I Do sparkled, with our Covid powerlessness adding extra layers of meaning to her powerful cry.

Her fascinating introduction to discovering that Semisonic’s late-1990s’ hit, Closing Time, was actually a song in disguise about fatherhood almost made up for Sleeping, which was less hidden, rather winking, in plain sight. It was one of very few weaker moments.

In contrast, her pre-encore set finished with Lay My Heart. Easily her most memorable number, or at least the most anthemic, this enraptured song of being in a state of grace was stunning. Written under the influence of the aurora borealis, it might have been better to leave the audience in that condition.

Custom and good manners demanded an encore, which didn’t reach the same heights but such was the warmth in the room that we could have looked on into the early hours, like Sermanni under those dancing Canadian skies, whisky full until frost grew from our noses.

Review by Paul Rhodes

Peter Miller’s landscapes, bales and rivers bring a slice of Yorkshire to Partisan café

The White Horse From Fields Near Kilburn, Summer 2020, oil painting by Peter Miller

FOR 40 years, Peter Miller ran Ken Spelman’s Bookshop, on Micklegate, in York.

Now, he is completing a hattrick of exhibitions since the bookseller’s closing chapter, retirement in 2012, on the same side of the cobbled street, at Partisan, Florencia Clifford and Hugo Hildyard’s vibrant artisan café on the same side of the cobbled street.

Filling the café’s upstairs walls with God’s Own Country colour, Peter is exhibiting From Kilburn To Hawnby, his series of landscape oil paintings of North Yorkshire, until November 30.

“This is the third show I’ve had in the last few years, after Ken Spelman’s Bookshop in 2014 and Scampston Hall, near Malton, in 2015,” he says. “As with the first two, the paintings explore landscape, in this case North Yorkshire.

At easel: Peter Miller at work on an oil painting in his studio. Note the angle of his chair

“The first one featured Eskdale to Scarborough; the second one, for Scampston Hall, focused on the Wolds, and what you notice is that Yorkshire is such a big county with these completely different landscapes.

“The pictures are representational and are painted in a modest spirit of connection with place, but as with all painting, colour, tone and composition increasingly have become the real subject of the pictures.”

Miller’s tale behind his latest show begins on the Wolds. “I was approached by Florencia and Hugo to do an exhibition because they’d been out to a mutual friend, Una McCluskey’s house, beyond Kilnwick Percy, with its fantastic view of the Vale of York,” he recalls.

“Some years ago, I did a picture of that view for Una for her kitchen, and when Florencia and Hugo saw it, they said, ‘gosh, who did that?’. I’d known them for a long time, and in fact they approached me before the pandemic, saying they’d love to host an exhibition of my work…but of course it then got put back.”

Boltby Scar, Summer 2020, by Peter Miller

Peter is an enthusiastic walker, blessed with a painter’s appreciation of landscape. “I’d done a lot of walks between Hawnby and Kilburn before the first lockdown, getting out and about, and then, in between lockdowns, I was able to refresh my memory of certain landscape scenes,” he says.

“I then did the paintings in my studio based on studies and photographs: Kilburn to Hawnby is an area I know well because I go up to Shandy Hall in Coxwold, where I’m involved with the Laurence Sterne Trust, and I enjoyed doing the studies in different seasons, such as studies of the White Horse in spring, summer and autumn.

“Put together, the pictures form a tangible evocation of time spent in the wonderfully varied Yorkshire landscape.”

Peter’s love of walking takes him to the Wolds most weeks, packing up a sandwich and stretching the legs over eight to ten miles. “It’s very seldom that we experience weather bad enough to make us abandon the walk; the Yorkshire weather is often better than people imagine, and walking over the landscape is very sustaining,” he says.

Hay Bales II, near Felixkirk, Autumn 2020, by Peter Miller

With that in mind, you might expect Peter to be a plein-air painter, but not so. “There are very strong arguments for plein-air painting, but I prefer to carry the scene in my mind’s eye, have it there and then re-create it, re-living the moment of being there, because it’s not just a picture of being there in the open air: it has veracity in paint and tone, and I find that being at one remove suits me better.

“Whereas with plein-air painting, the light is changing all the time and I would find that very distracting.”

Peter uses watercolours and acrylics for sketching but favours oils for his paintings. “I’ve never really mastered the watercolour technique, which is very difficult,” he says. “I find oil to be the most sympathetic medium because you can move it around on the surface; you can point over it, you can mix in, blend in, the oils, whereas with acrylics, the surface is dry within half an hour.

“I love how, with oils, you can paint in the sky and two days later you can feather it around and change it a bit. That freedom is not something I would want to give up. It’s such a satisfactory feeling working with oils, and then when it’s finished, you apply the varnish that gives it an intensity that rather flatters it.”

In the mix: Peter Miller mid-painting in oils

Born in 1947, Peter grew up in Chiswick. “But when I was a boy, I lived with my grandparents for three years in Blackpool; my grandfather was a commercial artist there but loved the countryside and I used to go on sketching trips with him,” he says.

“I learned the basics of paintings from this lovely old man, and that was my starting point. In fact I did think of going to art school, but I felt it would be limiting my options too much, so instead I studied history as a degree.”

Peter’s grandfather, meanwhile, has his own place in Blackpool’s history. “At the age of 75, he was called out of retirement to repaint the 4,000 square feet of the Tower Ballroom ceiling after the fire of 1955,” he says.

“He had to re-create The Carnival of Venice series of murals, going up 120 ft of scaffolding to start each day’s painting in his mid-70s, with only one helper to mix the colours. The mural now has a preservation order on it.

Hay Bales and Field, near Felixkirk, Autumn 2020

“He was also invited to paint a scene that could be seen behind famous Tower Ballroom organist Reg Dixon as he emerged from below, choosing to paint Isle Of Capri, in honour of Gracie Fields, who sang that sing.”

Peter first came to York in 1965, initially as an undergraduate at the then-new University of York, but like many since, he ended up staying, running Spelman’s, latterly in partnership with Tony Fothergill, until the canvas and cloth called.

“In that time, I’ve always had close links with the Friends of York Art Gallery, helped to set up a modern art gallery in Grape Lane and held regular art exhibitions at the bookshop from the late 1970s,” says Peter.

One such artistic association has come in handy for the latest exhibition. “Many of the frames were given to me by my artist friend John Langton, who’s now in his late-80s and no longer paints,” reveals Peter. “I availed myself of them and then did the paintings to fit the frames! It ended up being the cheapest exhibition I’ve ever done!”

Peter Miller: From Kilburn To Hawnby, Landscape Paintings of North Yorkshire, on show at Partisan, Micklegate, York, until November 30. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 4pm.

The River Rye at Hawnby, Early Autumn 2020, by Peter Miller